Christopher Hayes is a European-style social democrat, who worked at the left-leaning In These Times before assuming his current job at the equally left-leaning Nation. Not too many decades ago, this exemplary progressive would likely have reviewed books for such highbrow bastions as Commentary or Dissent or (if he got lucky) The New York Review of Books. But this is 2010. So instead Hayes covers books for a promotional Web site run by the world’s largest book chain.
The art-and-commerce hybrid in question is The Barnes & Noble Review, which launched in October 2007. It came about when CEO Steve Riggio teamed up with James Mustich, publisher of A Common Reader, which had expired the previous year. In a sense, the Common Reader was a precursor to Mustich’s current project: a literate, highly respected catalogue of little-known titles, which CR not only sold but sometimes republished under its own imprint. But BNR, with its prominent placement on the Barnes & Noble site, arguably elevates corporate sponsorship of a literary publication to new levels.
One might think that independent-minded writers would be cold to the idea of reviewing books for a massive corporate entity. Yet respected names have flocked to BNR. Along with Hayes, such heavyweights as philosopher A. C. Grayling, music critic Robert Christgau, and cartoonist Ward Sutton are all regular contributors. So are Ezra Klein and Michael Dirda, both of The Washington Post, as well as prominent critics like Brooke Allen, Laura Miller, and Adam Kirsch. In an era when each week brings word of a collapsing literary magazine or shrinking newspaper section, BNR just may be the future of American book reviewing. And surprisingly, few authors, critics, or editors seem troubled by that.
Of course, it is difficult to find anybody pleased with the state of book reviewing (at least the newspaper variety) in the United States. The list of casualties is depressingly familiar. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Chicago Tribune, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Raleigh News & Observer all have drastically scaled back their coverage of books. Both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times collapsed their freestanding Sunday sections into the body of the paper.
The damage has been even deeper at smaller papers and regional magazines. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of what arguably remains this country’s most prestigious reviewing medium, The New York Times Book Review, believes that “what is most in danger of being lost are the smaller, local papers that give authors direct, reader-friendly connections” to their audience. National outlets like The New Republic or The New Yorker, which survive on the strength of their political or cultural coverage, are unlikely to throw book criticism overboard. But it is the local newspapers that are hemorrhaging, argues Tanenhaus.
For newspaper owners, the standard defense is that they’re acceding to the realities of the market. A struggling business will cut where it can, goes the argument, and book coverage is no longer popular enough with readers or advertisers to justify its cost. Newspapers are simply giving the public what it wants.
Some critics, however, see a more ominous development. They view the book review’s demise as an index of cultural decline. Either the public no longer likes to read, or has grown accustomed to getting its literary intelligence online—and for free. Both scenarios amount to bad news, Tanenhaus says. “People’s attention spans are shorter,” he says. “And the sense of the value of literature as a whole has been diminished.”
Others are not so sure. “It’s not a decline,” insists Louis Menand, a frequent book reviewer for The New Yorker. “It’s a shift.” He points to what he calls the “Zagatization” of book reviewing—a process spearheaded by Amazon, where a prospective reader may be offered thousands of capsule assessments of a particular title. Assigned a book review not long ago, Menand logged on to the e-commerce site to find twenty-five customer reviews already posted. “I suddenly felt very unnecessary,” he laughs. The days when figures like Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippmann ruled the critical (or political) roost are long gone, Menand says. “And that’s good in principle,” he adds, “because it means that more people are writing on more products.”
Purists might blanch at this demotion of books to mere product, but Mustich takes the argument a step further, asserting that the success of BNR turns the dire prophecies on their heads. “It’s a sign of cultural energy that a book chain is supporting a venture with credibility,” he says.